Flavor Seekers

By Jeffrey Kluger|Thursday, October 01, 1992
As near as I can remember, it’s been 20 years since I ate my last Chuckle. To be honest, I don’t miss them a bit.

You do remember Chuckles, don’t you? Vaguely pillow-shaped, jellylike candies, each about two inches long, covered with a crust of granulated sugar that could reduce your tooth enamel to its constituent molecules on contact. Chuckles came in the standard colors of the confectionery spectrum: red, orange, yellow, green, and black. The red through green ones you ate; the black one you stuck under your movie theater seat to be chipped away--and perhaps carbon-dated--by archeologists in the twenty-third century.

As a child I had an insatiable appetite for Chuckles, but as an adult I began to cool on them. Mostly it was the name that bothered me; something about it was just too chipper. For years I had been walking up to candy counters and saying--with a straight face--Chuckles, please, and for years they had been looking at me like I was ordering a clown. Frankly, it makes me uncomfortable when my food sounds like it’s in a better mood than I am.

What finally soured me on Chuckles, however, was their flavor. My epiphany occurred the day I was eating a bowl of cherries and it suddenly occurred to me that what I was tasting did not have even a nodding acquaintance with the red--cherry--Chuckles I had been eating most of my life. For that matter, green Chuckles did not taste even remotely like limes, nor orange ones like oranges, nor yellow ones like lemons. Whoever was naming these things was pulling some serious wool over our taste buds.

I realized, of course, that Chuckles were not alone in playing fast and loose with flavors. Many of the tastes we take for granted--at least in processed foods--have long since stopped resembling what they’re supposed to be. Does aerosol cheese come from the same flavor universe as an authentic chunk of Wisconsin cheddar? Do peppermint and Pep O Mint have more than their first and last syllables in common? Would Molly McButter recognize the Land O Lakes Indian if she tripped over her? Do Fudgsicles taste like they’re fudging on the fudge? What mad chef is responsible for all these fresh-from-the-lab flavors, and, more important, is he subject to extradition?

Incensed, I decided to sniff out the nation’s relatively anonymous flavors industry. It was a bigger snort than I’d imagined. In the United States alone there are more than 75 different companies working full-time to churn out artificial flavors. Each of these labs serves hundreds of brand-name food manufacturers, who buy the labs’ inventions and put them into nearly everything we eat, from TV dinners to tacos to Tootsie Rolls.

Because the proof of the artificially flavored, partially emulsified pudding is in the eating, I knew I’d have to visit one of the labs and see for myself. I phoned a number of them but ultimately chose Quest International because: a) there was a sense of dynamism and energy in their name, and b) they took my call.

Quest is located a few miles outside Baltimore in an industrial park that also includes a cup factory and a printing plant. Though I’m as jaded as the next guy, the building still brought me up short. I didn’t go there expecting to meet Willie Wonka or Uncle Ben, but from the look of the place the head chef was going to be Robert Oppenheimer. Things got no better inside. The waiting room was stocked with such hot-off-the-presses reading fare as Food Product Design and Food Engineering, featuring such late-breaking stories as A Skinny Pig Is a Good Thing, Water Bottle Stands Out for Innovations, and Free Fat and Moisture Analysis Video (and you were excited when Hudson Hawk came out on tape).

Company spokeswoman Ursula Sohn gave me a brief rundown of the Quest corporate pantry. Basically, she explained, our job is to manufacture the flavors for the companies that manufacture the foods. Nearly any flavor category that occurs naturally we can make artificially. Our inventory includes dairy flavors, candy flavors, tobacco flavors, beverage flavors, savory flavors, and flavors for extruded products.

Savory, Sohn told me, is one of the broadest categories and refers to any nonsweet flavor like cheese or gravy or meat. (I’d always thought it was just another word for scrumptious.) Extruded products sounded a lot less appetizing (Get home early tonight, sweetheart; I’m extruding something special for dinner), but Sohn assured me that these are perfectly benign foods like taco chips, which start in a doughlike state and are squeezed into uniform, bite-size shapes. (She couldn’t just call them finger food?)

Whatever category a consumable falls into, synthesizing its flavor requires the expertise of one of two types of highly trained specialists--chemists and flavorists. Flavorists have the more straightforward job: they eat things.

Flavorists are people who come to us with home economics or food technology degrees who we then put through a very intensive in-house course, Sohn said. We teach them how to taste, how to smell, how to recognize what component in a food is responsible for what portion of the taste. They learn to identify specific flavor ‘notes.’ Is it a clean note? An oily note? Then, when it’s time to design an artificial flavor, the flavorist sits down with the natural version and profiles it.

And this profiling involves--just tasting it? I asked tentatively.

Essentially, she said. And smelling it.

I was intrigued. Might Sohn be aware of any other jobs out there that demand similar skills? Hot-tubbist? Imported-beerist? Nap Technician? She assured me, however, that the flavorist’s job is not all peaches and cream.

Flavors are extremely complicated things. A flavorist may sit down with, say, a mango flavor and notice a sweetness, a tang, a tartness, a whole range of things. Then he’ll go to a shelf and say, ‘Well, citric acid has one of these flavor components, another type of acid has another component,’ and on and on. After a long time and dozens of ingredients, he’ll assemble the entire mango. It’s really remarkable when it all comes together into a complete flavor.

The problem is, even with the entire periodic table to use as a spice rack, there’s no guarantee that the flavor will come together. In a nation whose culinary legacy includes the design and construction of the first prototype Scooter Pie, it’s clear that taste can be a singularly subjective, singularly personal thing.

A flavorist may come up with, say, a great chocolate flavor for a chocolate cake, Sohn said, but will it taste the same way to other people? Sometimes you’ll take the finished flavor back to the customer, and he’ll taste it and say, ‘Sure, it’s chocolate, but I wanted something a little more Dutch chocolate.’ For such fine-tuning, Quest usually turns things over to the chemists.

Their labs looked like chemistry laboratories anywhere, without so much as a refrigerator magnet or an I HATE HOUSEWORK dish towel to suggest what’s made there. My tour of their domain began inauspiciously, with food chemist Allen Bednarczyk offering me protective headgear and goggles, which he strongly suggested I don. The reason, he explained, is that we’d be visiting some explosion-proof areas. This, of course, raised two important questions: First, if these areas were so explosion-proof, why was I suddenly dressed like a federal investigator at Three Mile Island? And second, what food could they possibly be making that would carry even a remote risk of containing TNT in place of its MSG? (Once, I admit, I myself accidentally detonated a baked potato in my microwave oven, sending a deadly tuber cloud over a three-state area. But I expected more from flavor professionals.)

Bednarczyk assured me, however, that I was in no immediate danger, and he showed me to the portion of the Quest labs where natural flavors are broken down and analyzed. The most important piece of equipment we use here is a gas chromatograph, he said. This is essentially an oven where small quantities of natural flavor components are heated. What we’re looking for when we do this are a component’s volatile compounds, those things that turn directly to gas as temperature rises. It’s volatile compounds that provide foods with their distinctive tastes because these substances vaporize off the tongue and drift up through the nasal passages, where they stimulate your sense of smell. That’s why you can’t perceive flavors when you have a cold. (The exception to this rule, of course, is the cloyingly flavored Vicks cherry cough drop, which has the power to volatilize through any nasal blockage and, in laboratory experiments, has been perceived--and spit out--by human cadavers.)

As the flavor components vaporize in the gas chromatograph, they stream out one at a time, with the lighter, more volatile ones appearing first and the heavier, more stable ones coming later. As each gas emerges, it is channeled to a mass spectrometer for identification.

In the mass spectrometer, we bombard the volatiles with electrons, Bednarczyk said. This destabilizes the molecules and causes them to break apart. Each fragment has a charge, and if you shoot the fragments through a magnetic field, those charges can be read, yielding a characteristic scribble on the computer screen that corresponds with a particular chemical component.

The flavor components that show up on the mass spectrometer screen represent only a very small part of a food’s chemical makeup. An ordinary piece of fruit, for example, may contain up to 500 chemicals, including ketones, fatty acids, aldehydes, nitrogen, sulfur compounds, and members of the ester group--which is either a class of complex molecules or a trio of female vocalists recently signed to a lucrative Motown deal. Of all these chemicals, however, there may be no more than 50 that we can taste. And these, Bednarczyk explained, exist in the food in proportions measuring in the parts per million. Talk about your stingy portions.

While gas chromatography and mass spectrometry work fine for all manner of sweet and fruit flavors, they don’t quite do the trick for roasted or brewed foods like meats or coffee or beer. This is because the act of heat-processing food generates thousands of additional flavor components, each of which has to be identified. To create, say, a beef gravy, the chemists at Quest must use a somewhat different manufacturing process.

What we do is extract sugars, amino acids, proteins, and other ingredients from real meat and place them in a sort of industrial pressure cooker, Bednarczyk said. There, intense heat and pressure will force the ingredients to interact, producing most of the same ingredients that give cooked meat its taste--only in highly concentrated form. These condensed components can then be used in small quantities to create very potent flavors.

To me, this method came as a bit of a surprise since, for a long time, I’d thought that that was how you were supposed to cook meat. This may explain why the first pot roast I ever tried to make cooked itself down into a sort of neutron flanken, which even today is being studied by cosmologists from around the world looking for clues to the structure of black holes and other superdense bodies.

When a new taste has been all worked out, Quest stores the formula in a nondescript file room that serves as a sort of Fort Knox for the company’s flavor inventory. The room is protected by a metal door, a double lock, an electronic security system, and a nighttime guard. Just why the Quest flavor makers bother with so much security was not clear. If they’re so concerned about privacy, why not just patent their formulas?

That’s just what you don’t want to do, Bednarczyk said. Once you patent something, the formula goes public. Then a competitor could simply read the patent, change an ingredient or two, and claim a new product. It’s better to leave it legally unprotected but chemically unknown. (This, I must admit, struck me as a teensy bit irresponsible. When you’re dealing with food ingredients that have their own atomic numbers and flash points, it seems you owe the other guys at least a hint. You think Pop Rocks were discovered on purpose?)

Inevitably, I began to wonder how, with so much technology and expertise behind it, Quest or any flavor company could ever wind up with such tongue-numbing tastes as Chuckles lime or Vicks cherry. The answer is, sometimes that’s the flavor they want to create. The food industry is full of what’s known as fantasy flavors, tastes that, over time, have become associated with certain colors and fruits. No one knows the origin of these flavors (though the fourth dimension has not been ruled out), but they do know one thing: people demand them.

It’s an unpredictable business, Bednarczyk said. And you never want to get stuck with a huge inventory of a flavor no one wants. We make what the consumers ask for.

Of course, the flavor industry will never be able to satisfy every need. There are--and probably always will be--tastes that simply defy duplication. I challenge anyone to recreate the flavor of an authentic summer-camp s’more without first cooking it over an authentic campfire and then accidentally dropping it in authentic dirt. Similarly, could anyone ever mimic the fine flavor of adding-machine paper created by the people who make those long strips of sugary dot candies?

In the end, it’s probably a good thing that there are limits to humanity’s culinary powers. History indicates that when the food genie is let out of the bottle there’s no telling where it will lead. (Luncheon meat, after all, didn’t just happen.) The flavor industry, however, is pressing inexorably forward. On the food horizon could one day be completely artificial meat, artificial tea, artificial popcorn, and even artificial wine. When that day arrives, my whine, I assure you, will be quite real.
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